The UK produces wonderful children's literature. But too often our Young Adult or Teenage fiction disappoints in comparison with American and Australian fiction. For that reason, it's always especially pleasing to welcome a fresh, authentically YA voice, as it was a year or so ago when Kevin Brooks arrived with Martyn Pig. I greeted that book, in a phrase understandably seized on by Brooks' publicists, as 'the most exciting new voice since David Almond'. Catherine Forde's first book for Egmont, Fat Boy Swim, was good, but not sufficiently distinctive to be welcomed in those terms. But with her new book, SKARRS, she stakes her claim to be considered the most exciting new UK YA voice since Kevin Brooks.
The book bursts open with a brief vignette in a barber's shop then quickly segues into the first of many substantial scenes in the novel - the funeral of the main character's grandfather. The male voice is immediately compelling, brimming with surly adolescent obnoxiousness but also filled with a compensating energy and sense of being his own (young) man:
It cracks me up knowing my Old Dear is fizzing with me, but has to play things genteel, ladling out her disapproval in semaphore and hisses because we're in church.
'Danny! You're late. Ssssstraighten that tie!'
My Old Dear's jabby index finger stilettos my arm while she fires daggers with her eyes. It's some feat: blowing an invisible gasket while you're smiling piously for the sake of mourners you hardly know. Up folk troop, tapping the Old Dear on the shoulder, whispering sympathetic claptrap in her lug.
The grandfather, though buried at the start of the book, remains a main character throughout, courtesy of interviews he has given to Danny's best (ex) friend, Richard, in the last fortnight of his life. I felt uneasy about these extracts early on. The device of inveigling the experience of older characters into a novel by means of (oh, yes) a history project has been used rather too often by children's novelists and I feared that something similar was happening here. To begin with, the wartime prisoncamp memories of the grandfather seem somewhat divorced from the main action, and this was another worry, but Forde modulates the development of the grandfather's story very cleverly and smoothly so that during the second half of the book the extracts are beginning to drive the novel's momentum.
Young Danny's love of The Skarrs - a rock band intent on provoking outrage via their racist lysrics - is a studied affront to his father, who loves the great and good music of the 1960s and 1970s and has a vintage vinyl collection, which becomes the focus of Danny's decline, as he allows a so-called mate to ransack it, flog some prize items, and buy drugs with the proceeds.
This is a family drama and so, outside of the grandfather's remembered prisoncamp experience, the events are lowkey. Being expelled from school is as bad as it gets. But what makes the book so powerful is the quality of the dialogue. At the book's launch, Forde, in staged conversation with Graham Marks, revealed that she hones the dialogue very carefully and reads it aloud over and over to test it out. The care and attention she pays to this aspect of her craft pays off, because the characters - the loathsome Jakey, the principled and highly-together Richard, the Old Dear, all of them - jump off the page with the immediacy of a really good, gritty TV drama. Indeed, the book cries out for tele-treatment: great cast opportunities for young and old, wonderful sountrack potential.
One of the tests of a gifted writer is the degree to which they write just as well about the incidental aspects of their plot as they do about the main narrative. Danny's attraction towards Ali Patel, Richard's girlfiend, an area in which (without wishing to give too much away) he makes less progress than in other aspects of his life, is excellently observed.
SKARRS is a first-rate novel. Read it. Then recommend it.